Sisters and Brothers, Grace and Peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Or, if you prefer John’s way of greeting the congregation as he begins his sermon, “You brood of vipers!”
It certainly grabs the audience’s attention!
These poor people have just come 20 miles, walked all day, dropped from 3000 feet above sea level to 1000 feet below sea level, and they will have to walk back. And this is how they are greeted. “You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee from the wrath to come?!”
And before they can formulate their answer, before the can form their justification, which was about to be “But what wrath? We’re children of Abraham!” He cuts them off. Before the words have even formed on their lips. “Do not even begin to say, don’t come at me with, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’”
To be very clear, this is not just an off-hand comment. This is a game-changer. Regardless of who you are in ancient Israel, Abraham is the basis of your identity. Whether you are a Pharisee, committed to perfect adherence to the law of Moses, or whether you are just an everyday schmo, tending the fields and only going to the Temple when it’s required, Abraham is everything. The covenant with Abraham is everything. Through Abraham, God was determined to make a great nation, and if you are a Jew, you are that nation. If you are a Jew, you are an heir to God’s promise of blessing.
And here is John, calling that into question. Wrath is coming, he says. Judgement is coming, he claims. The ax is lying at the root of the tree, and being a child of Abraham is not going to be enough.
Which is going to be shocking news to the crowds gathered there to hear John. No wonder he wound up in prison and then beheaded. His message is not a popular one. But the people of Israel are not the only ones to believe that their ancestry was enough to save them, enough to make them special, enough to set them apart as God’s only beloved people.
180 years ago today, another people who believed they had been set apart as God’s beloved people won a major victory.
In the 1830s, 5000 Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch settlers in the South African Cape, left the Cape Colony, taking with them the people they called their “clients.” These were, in fact, slaves, the descendants of the local KhoiKhoi and San tribes that had lived in the Cape for thousands of years. The British had recently taken control of the Cape Colony, about the same time they had abolished slavery throughout the British empire. These Afrikaners were determined to keep their slaves, and so they set out in wagons that looked very much like the ones that left here for Oregon during the American Westward Expansion. These Voortrekkers, as they are now known, were intent on establishing their own colonies in the African interior, and they eventually spread throughout Southern Africa into Namibia and Rhodesia. But it started with about 5000 people, men, women, and children, straggling out into the vast empty wilderness.
Except that it wasn’t empty wilderness. It was settled land. It was home to bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers, KhoiKhoi and San, but more than that, it was the settled land of tribes of Bantu-speaking peoples, including the Zulu kingdom, a nation that had been founded by Shaka Zulu and was now run by his heir, Dingaan. And Dingaan and his people were not interested in sharing their land with these outsiders.
Over the next several years, amid skirmishes, attempted peace treaties, and perceived betrayals on both sides, many of the white families were killed and their cattle and sheep taken.History has not seen fit to report how many Africans died in these years.
Finally, in December of 1838, an Afrikaner commando militia of 500 men, along with 2 cannons and at least 500 guns, trekked toward the heart of the Zulu Kingdom, on the southeast coast of South Africa, near present-day Durban. About 300 miles from the coast, they created a laager, lashing their wagons together in a circle to form a strong defensive position on the banks of the Ncome River.
The next day, December 16, 1838, a huge Zulu force of over 10,000 attacked. They were armed only with spears. They were met by cannon and rifle fire. When they finally retreated, they left over 3000 dead behind. The Afrikaners lost not a single man of their 500. The Battle of Blood River, so-named for the waters that ran red that day, was the beginning of the end for the Zulu Kingdom, which soon split and disintegrated under further pressure from Afrikaner settlers.
The Afrikaners took their victory as evidence, not of the superiority of rifles over spears or cannons over barefoot warriors; rather, they took it as evidence of God’s favor for their cause. They took it as confirmation that God approved of their actions, that God had destined this land for them, that God had chosen them to subdue and civilize the savages. This story became their foundational story, and the retelling of it was used to justify and reinforce Apartheid over 100 years later.
December 16 was a national holiday for the ruling Afrikaners, and was called Dingaan’s Day, just to remind the defeated African people of their disgraced king. Later it became known as the Day of the Covenant. Because they believed that they had a new covenant, a mandate from God to slaughter the Zulu people and their neighbors, to steal their land, and to establish their own White African nation.
I would not want to equate the deeds of white South Africans before and during Apartheid with the crowds that stand in front of John the Baptist in the wilderness of the Jordan. The Jewish people have been, through most of their history, the victims of the kind of bigotry and hatred that led to Apartheid and the Holocaust and the Atlantic Slave Trade and a long list of other atrocities. But John’s message to them is the same message that was lost on so many down through the years:
God is in the business of bringing blessing, yes. Of claiming God’s children, absolutely. Of making covenants, even. But God’s blessing of Abraham was not for Abraham. It was for all nations. Abraham was blessed so that all nations of the world would be blessed through him.
Blessed to be a blessing.
This is what we so often miss in God’s blessings. And in missing this, we create for ourselves mythologies of being blessed-er than thou.We stake our righteousness, our identity, on our own sense of who we are, and we forget who we have been made by God to be. Afrikaners in South Africa, Aryan nationalists in Nazi Germany, white slavers in the American South, the Ottomans in Armenia, Hutus in Rwanda, the settlers of the American West, it has happened over and over again throughout history. We buy in to a belief that God has favored us, our people, over and above others, and we claim those blessings for ourselves. We read wealth and worldly success as signs of God’s favor, and we forget what God’s first covenant stipulated. “In you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
This is what John calls the crowds back to, there in the wilderness. Blessed to be a blessing.
God’s promise does not depend on our actions. We are not blessed because we do anything. We are blessed, simply because God loves us. But being blessed, our question becomes, along with the crowds, “What then should we do?”
The fact is, we who sit in this room are among the most blessed people in the world, if we use the measures of wealth, power, access, and privilege. But none of that is proof of anything other than an accident of our birth.
What then should we do?
John’s answer is clear. The terms of God’s covenant are clear. Having been so blessed, we are to use our blessings to bless others. Our wealth, our power, our privilege is to be used to alleviate the suffering of others. We are to share our comfort, and to use our access to advocate for those who do not have access.
Last week, John proclaimed, in the words of Isaiah, that “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.” God has promised to make smooth paths through our wilderness. Yet we humans insist on building mountains, and setting ourselves on top of them, building fortresses in which to horde our blessings, our privilege, our sense of self-importance, while outside our neighbors suffer and beg for the scraps from our tables. We focus on human community, defined in human terms, by the blessings we most value: Race, ethnicity, nationality, class, denomination, politics; we build walls of every stripe, determined to be right, to be proven worthy, to earn God’s blessing, for our community.
But this week, John reminds us what God’s community looks like. What God’s covenant looks like. Whether it is the covenant with Abraham or with Moses, or with David, or the New Covenant that was established through Christ.
God’s covenant always points us toward one another.
God’s covenant always leads us to ask, what then should we do?
How should we be with one another?
Since 1990, Apartheid has been history in South Africa. But the mythologies, the stories and beliefs that made Apartheid possible, those endure. And in the early days of their new nation, the people had to decide what to do with December 16. Abolish it completely? Or transform it? Finally it was decided that it would be kept as a public holiday, “with the purpose of fostering reconciliation and national unity.”
The first meeting of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission took place on December 16, 1995. Since then, December 16 has become the Day of Reconciliation, and it has been used to celebrate the many minorities of South Africa, as well as promote equality between all, regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, or gender.
What then should we do? The story of December 16 is a good start. Reconciliation. Turning toward one another. If you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher wall. John challenges the crowds to return to the path that God is building for us through the wilderness, the path of right relationship with God and with one another.
The problem is, we will always want to believe that this path is the prerequisite. We always re-tell the story as an if-then. What then should we do, we ask, so that God will love us? What then should we do, we wonder, in order to win God’s favor, in order to be considered a child of God, in order to be raised up as God’s child.
But our story, the story that matters more than any ancestry.com story about where we came from, our story is the story of the God who comes to us, regardless of where we are from. The Word of God that came to John in the wilderness was a game-changer. John dismissed human stories claiming that God would only, could only, work through the children of Abraham. Instead, John told us God’s story. God can raise up children of Abraham from the stones.
And God has.
From the stones of our hearts, the stones of our fortress walls, God has raised up children of Abraham, children of God’s covenant, children of God’s story, those who seek relationship and reconciliation, rather than privilege and separation.
God has chosen us, raised us up, named us and claimed us as God’s own, while we were yet sinners, while we were yet placing our trust in stories of our own superiority, while we were yet shutting ourselves off, God has come to us, in the prophets, in the wilderness, in the Word made flesh, in a baby in a manger, in our baptisms, in the body and blood of Christ,and claimed us for a different story,for God’s story. The story of those blessed to be a blessing.